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A conference at a crossroads. Where does the CAA go from here?

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The year 2011 was the high mark for the CAA. Already one of the best mid-major leagues in all of college basketball, the conference turned in perhaps its best performance yet, earning two at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, with 11-seeded VCU rampaging through the tournament to earn the league’s second appearance in the Final Four, after George Mason became the most famous Cinderella in recent memory in 2006. The league’s top three squads, George Mason, VCU, and league champion Old Dominion, all finished in the top 35 in the RPI, with three other schools in the top 100. The future looked bright.

By 2014, everything changed. George Mason and VCU left the conference for the A-10. Old Dominion departed for Conference USA and FBS football. So did the league’s newest all-sports addition, Georgia State. The College of Charleston was brought in to replace the departed schools, but the CAA’s identity as the pinnacle of mid-major basketball never recovered. The league hasn’t earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament since.

Now, in 2020, the league sits at a crossroads. What is the CAA’s identity? What does it want to be, and how will it move forward?

Many defunct college football conferences throughout history share a similar story. The Southern Conference, once bloated with over 20 teams, was unable to reconcile the interests of a spread-out league full of schools of different sizes, which eventually led groups of teams to leave and found the SEC and ACC. The WAC, once the premier mid-major football conference, eventually expanded from Hawaii to Ft. Worth and collapsed under its own weight. A splinter group left to found the Mountain West. Unable to replicate the tight geographic bond it enjoyed upon its founding, the Missouri Valley football conference eventually became a way station for vagrant football programs from Cincinnati to Memphis to New Mexico State, before vanishing from the ranks of big time football. The list goes on and on.

Successful and stable athletic conferences share an institutional identity.

It could be a geographic identity, or an ideological one, or an athletic one, or some sort of combination. But without shared identities, it’s very difficult for schools to agree on a unified direction.

In 2020, it’s hard to figure out exactly what the CAA’s identity is.

The league currently has 10 full members, in seven different states. Many of those schools are relatively large, with enrollments over 20,000, but four have enrollments under 11,000, with Elon, the smallest, at less than 7,000. Four schools are private.

Once you add in the affiliate members, things get even more complicated. Six other schools compete in the CAA in FCS football--Albany, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Richmond, Stony Brook and Villanova. The result is a league that is indisputably good at FCS football, but also one that is neither northern nor southern, public or private, big or small.

It includes schools like Northeastern, New Hampshire and Maine, where hockey is a critical part of their athletic department mission. It includes UNC-Wilmington, where baseball is more important.

Even the CAA’s commissioner, Joe D'Antonio, admitted trying to nail down “what makes a CAA school” is a tricky question. When I asked him, he told me that CAA schools are committed in competing athletically at the highest levels, and for caring deeply about academics, citing the league’s strong conference-wide APR scores, but admitted that it can be “tough to identify a common bond.”

Multiple sources, both inside and outside the conference, tell Extra Points that this identity crisis isn’t just an idle intellectual exercise, but one that poses a threat to the health of the league. Without understanding exactly what the league is, and wants to be now, agreeing on any sort of plan for the future becomes much more difficult.

Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was the vote to postpone the fall athletics season. Multiple sources within the league told Extra Points that the CAA’s football-only affiliate membership voted to postpone the fall season before the league’s full membership had a chance to make a decision. That led to hurt feelings and damaged relationships throughout league, relationships that multiple sources told Extra Points were already strained.

It isn’t a coincidence, after all, that every single CAA school put out a different press release after the decision to postpone fall sports was made, and that the initial communication from the league indicated the decision wasn’t unanimous. Three schools--James Madison, Elon and Villanova--indicated they were going to attempt to play an independent football schedule without the CAA, although in the end, all full and affiliate CAA schools eventually decided to not participate in fall athletics.

D'Antonio pointed out that wrangling all member institutions during the summer was a uniquely challenging job, seeing as league officials weren’t just talking to the CAA full members, but their affiliate members, while those affiliate members were also talking to their conferences, all trying to make quick decisions. In the end, the league opted for a communications strategy that maximized local control. That makes some sense externally, but it isn’t clear if everybody felt that way internally.

As one athletic official at a CAA school put it, the league’s athletic directors just plain don’t like each other very much. Part of that tension stems from the league’s identity problem.

As one industry source explained to me, “If an AD or president was still with the league back in the early 2010s, when the CAA was a premier basketball destination, they might still view the league at that level, whereas somebody who entered the league in 2017, when it clearly isn’t, is going to view the league’s standing a bit differently.”

Those disagreements have played out in other decisions, too. On Wednesday, the CAA announced plans for a six-game conference schedule in spring football, without a conference championship game. James Madison head coach Curt Cegnetti, quoted by FCS Football, said, “...it seems sometimes like the bottom teams in the conference are holding the top teams back at times on certain issues.”

A CAA institution athletic official said that no single leader has emerged from the group of presidents, athletic directors or conference officers. “You know that meme, with all the Spidermen pointing at each other? That’s where it feels like we are right now.”

A conference at a crossroads. Where does the CAA go from here?

The league’s lack of cohesion could affect the most important question in the CAA’s immediate future: expansion.

D'Antonio told me that like all college conferences, the CAA would like to find ways to better control travel costs, especially since the league is so geographically far flung. That could potentially include pursuing regional scheduling models, but multiple sources, both inside the conference and within the industry, told Extra Points that officials at league institutions also believe expansion could help solve those problems.

After all, there are 12 football-playing institutions in the CAA. Adding two more schools, for example, could allow the league to split into divisions, limiting travel from New England down into the South.

But if athletic officials can’t agree on what the CAA is, or what constitutes a CAA school, then agreeing on an expansion or membership strategy is impossible. Should the new schools be in the north? The south? Big schools? HBCUs? There’s no consensus.

The risk for the CAA is that if its officials don’t make decisions, somebody else could for them.

The East Coast looks to be an epicenter for future conference realignment, especially at the FCS level. It isn’t exactly a state secret that the ASUN is looking to expand and build a new FCS football league around Kennesaw State and North Alabama. Industry sources tell Extra Points that feelers have been put out from the ASUN to multiple CAA institutions. The MEAC, after Florida A&M and Bethune Cookman bolted for the SWAC, could be at risk for collapse, sending several eastern schools looking for new homes. The Big South, America East and NEC could also all potentially look at adding schools. It’s even possible there could be realignment at the FBS level, as two industry sources told Extra Points that some schools from Conference USA had expressed interest in splitting and forming a more geographically concentrated league, similar to what happened with the Mountain West and WAC.

In a strategic review document produced for the William & Mary athletic department, conference instability was identified as a potential threat:

“William & Mary is a founding member of the Colonial Athletic Association. Membership has changed significantly over the last five years as the national landscape continues to experience volatility. Conference realignment paired with leadership change in the CAA creates uncertainty. Realignment of CAA members could adversely impact W&M Athletics in a variety of ways. Increases in expenditures for team travel and recruiting will negatively impact operating budgets. Scheduling home and away contests will be challenging. Conference rivalries will be diminished, which will impact fan attendance”

That potential movement means that the CAA could have options if it wanted to add membership. But it also means that if the conference isn’t proactive and unified, its own members could have other options. The brand advantages the league might have had over its peers in 2011 do not look nearly as strong in 2020.

These challenges aren’t insurmountable. Even with basketball fortunes in decline, the CAA still has some strong assets. It really does have multiple institutions with academically prestigious profiles, like William & Mary, Delaware and Elon. James Madison is the best FCS football program not named North Dakota State, and several others could compete for deep playoff runs in a given year. Plenty of the league’s schools are in major cities that are attractive destinations for recruiting and corporate partnerships. And D'Antonio lauded the league’s human capital, from presidents to ADs to coaches, as a real asset.

Additional presidential involvement in athletics, which sources told Extra Points had not been extensive in years past, could help. D'Antonio told me the league has made positive strides over the last few years in better informing and engaging the league’s presidents. But given the current financial crisis, all of them are undoubtedly also focused on other priorities. Delaware, for example, is planning on furloughing thousands of university staff members.

It could be an uphill climb trying to get everybody on the same page. And wrangling some sort of consensus across disparate institutions isn’t just a CAA problem.

The American, after all, recently lost UConn, a northern basketball school stuck in a league of mostly southern institutions. The AAC’s current configuration spans a geographical footprint even larger than the CAA’s, and contains schools with vastly different institutional profiles. It seems like the only thing that really ties Memphis, Temple, Tulane and Cincinnati together is a commitment to playing high level FBS football, and a lack of another more obvious home. You could say the same thing about Conference USA, a league that runs from Norfolk to El Paso, contains research powerhouse Rice, and more regionally focused public schools like Marshall and Western Kentucky. The WAC appears to be pursuing a split system similar to the CAA’s, with a basketball conference that spans from Chicago to Southern California, and a potential FCS football league focused on the Rocky Mountains and Texas.

You can paper over those differences with a lot of money, or a lot of institutional inertia. The CAA, AAC, Conference USA and current WAC have neither. So it will come down to personal relationships and a shared vision that can withstand adversity.

Do they have it now? Can they get it in the future?

And if CAA can’t, can anybody else?

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A conference at a crossroads. Where does the CAA go from here?

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